Authorities in Kompong Thom province last week seized 10 truckloads of luxury and first-grade timber traveling with boat racers on their way to Phnom Penh for the Water Festival, officials said yesterday.
More than 400 teams are expected to participate in this year’s races, which began Saturday and end today.
Pak Pannha, the Forestry Administration’s division chief in Stong district, said that his officers stopped the convoy on Wednesday night, confiscating an unspecified quantity of wood, including the luxury-grade species Kra Nhuung, Neang Nuon and Thnong.
The wood was being held at the headquarters of the administration’s northern Tonle Sap inspectorate in Kompong Svay district, according to Mr Pannha.
Logging luxury-grade timber is prohibited and, though it is widespread, a moratorium on commercial logging has been in effect since 2002.
Provincial governor Chhun Chhorn said the racers were simply trying to cover their expenses for the trip. While claiming ignorance about the legality of the wood, which he identified as second-grade, or of lesser commercial value, Mr Chhorn acknowledged that he approved requests from 13 of the province’s 31 teams participating in the races to ship and sell the wood.
“I approved requests from the 13 boats from Prasat Sambor district to bring second-grade timber to sell in Phnom Penh,” he said. “We did not think about whether it is right or wrong, but I sympathize with them and let them join the Water Festival.
“The money from selling that second-grade wood, which is very little money, will pay for their accommodations and transportation of both the boats and the racers,” he said.
According to festival organizers, the government pays each racer 20,000 riel, or about $5, per day.
Deputy provincial governor Sok Lou said an unknown number of additional trucks in the truck convoy escaped after being stopped on Wednesday night.
“There were only 10 trucks that we were able to stop from the convoy, but some trucks dropped their timber and some escaped,” he said.
Mr Lou said the wood was sourced from Prasat Sambor and Sandan districts, while the racers came from Prasat Sambor and Kompong Svay districts.
He said the racers were released Thursday morning but would not elaborate on why or how many of them there were.
“I cannot know all the details,” he said, referring further questions to provincial prosecutor Pen Sarath, whom he identified as the chief investigator in the case. Mr Sarath declined to comment.
District police also declined to comment yesterday, while officials with the Forestry Administration inspectorate and cantonment in the area could not be reached.
Forestry Administration spokesman Thun Sarath said that his office was preparing documents for the provincial court to begin prosecution.
He also said that the seized wood was all illegal before referring further questions to Tim Sitha, director of legislation and law enforcement at the administration, who declined to elaborate because he was busy attending the festival.
“The department of legislation and law enforcement is working on it,” said Mr Sarath. “During the Water Festival, we do combat timber smuggling all over the country. Now we found it in Kompong Thom alone.”